The result is a win-win situation for students as well as Midwestern agricultural states.
"The growth in the Midwestern economy can come from adding value to farm products," says Purdue University Dean of Agriculture Victor L. Lechtenberg. "If we can provide the intellectual horsepower, then we can create economic growth and job opportunities, and not just raw materials."
Food science is among the most rapidly growing departments in the School of Agriculture. This year undergraduate enrollment has increased by almost 17 percent. The program's enrollment currently totals approximately 121 undergraduate and graduate students.
"There are not enough graduates coming out to meet the industry's demands," says Jay Marks, associate professor of food science at Purdue.
Mary Ellen Schopp, staffing and training manager for Van den Bergh Foods in Chicago, attributes an increase in hiring in the food industry to an improved economy and the need for food companies to create products.
"There is a heavy emphasis on research and development because of the changes in the marketplace and consumer tastes," Schopp says. Van den Bergh Foods produces the brands Imperial margarine and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, among others. Now, by introducing a yogurt-based spread and other new products, Van den Bergh has created a whole new market.
Diet is not the only consumer issue driving changes in the food industry. Convenience plays a key role in much of today's research. In 1981, the average consumer considered a food item to be convenient if it could be prepared in 20 minutes or less, according to John Floros, associate professor of food science at Purdue. In 1991, he adds, the average consumer's idea of a convenient food was one that was ready in two minutes or less.
Could the consumer press for items to be prepared in a few seconds? Some of those items already exist, if that's what the consumer wants, Floros notes. Prepared salads, packaged in special plastic bags that extend their shelf life, take a few seconds to prepare, he says. The consumer simply opens the bag and the product is ready to serve.
While some research scratches the convenience itch, other projects address issues such as environment and health.
Purdue researchers are looking into the feasibility of adding preservatives to plastic packaging to help with food preservation.
"In many cases we are only concerned about food surfaces, so by putting additives in the plastic we don't need additives in the foods themselves," Floros says.
Purdue's graduates, many of whom are involved in projects such as these, are well prepared to enter the evolving work force, Marks notes.
"Industry tells us that our students have a six-month to one-year advantage over other food science students," he says. "We train them to continue to learn."
Faculty emphasize hands-on training, giving students a taste of real-life work through a variety of experiences:
Nearly every student who graduates with a degree in food science has a job within three or four months of graduation. Most, Marks says, leave campus with diplomas and jobs in hand. The starting salaries they command average $29,375.
Some of the work in food science, such as adding preservatives to the package rather than the food, benefits human health. Some is good for our environment, such as research that Floros has conducted to reduce the salinity of water being released from pickle processing plants. And those projects, which employ students in the Midwest and add value to farm products, are good for the economy.
Source: Victor L. Lechtenberg, (765) 494-8391; home, (765) 463-3861; Internet, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jay Marks, (765) 494-8261; home, (765) 567-2940; Internet, email@example.com
Mary Ellen Schopp, (708) 955-5297
John Floros, (765) 494-9111; home, (765) 583-4996; Internet, firstname.lastname@example.org
Writer: Tracy S. Petersen, (765) 494-8084; home, (765) 877-1366, Internet, email@example.com
NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Color photo illustration is available from Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2096.
To the Purdue News and Photos Page